5/25/2009

Star Trek

Everybody loves the new Star Trek but me. Well, me and George RR Martin. And possibly several other people, except I can't remember who they are just now. Like the embarrassing relative at a wedding party who keeps following you around and bugging you, I'm here to tell you just how shit I think the new movie really is.

For a start, it's basically Dubya: The Trek Years. Seriously. Wayward kid with daddy issues who aspires to his daddy's job, but instead of applying himself spends his time getting drunk, hanging out in bars and getting beat up until a father-figure stand-in turns up to give him a stiff telling-to. Next thing you know there's a major terrorist event, he grabs the reigns of power and leads a space-posse to find the bad guys and drop them down a very deep hole.

Let me be clear. I have a soft spot for JJ Abrams, mainly because he gave me Lost and Fringe. Neither is flawless, but in the greater scheme of things, they've given me something to mildly obsess over. But Abrams' Star Trek isn't a movie. It's a Republican Party broadcast.

For what it's worth, the actors generally do a decent enough job with the material they're given. Chris Pine did pretty much the best he could under the circumstances, and the same could be said for the rest. Quinto was always pretty much a shoe-in to play Spock. If you watch the movie in complete neutral, brain off and floating on a sea of caffeinated sugar drink and sweetened popcorn, critical faculties firmly booted out of the room to sulk, you kind of enjoy it. It's CGI as pornography, money shot after gratuitous money shot: big spiky spaceships, shit blowing up, skydiving from space; such things are there not to support the story so much as to replace it. Every five minutes, when you start to think 'just hang on a minute, that doesn't make sense', something goes BOOM and you're staring at the pretty, pretty lights. It's Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' as deliberate corporate entertainment strategy.

Now the negatives, and spoilers abound, naturally.

Look, I'm not asking for rigid adherence to the boundaries of Einsteinian physics here, but ... come on. A singularity that eats planets, but handily sucks Romulan mining ships into the past? Bollocks. Are you going to build a mining ship with flimsy awkward platforms hanging over enormous drops? No, I don't fucking think so.

And while we're at it ... Kirk gets dumped on a random planet, chased by a monster, then just happens to wander into the cave where Future Spock's been sitting around on his arse? There just happens to be a Federation base nearby, which just happens to have Scotty in it? And, guess what; Spock just happens to know the means by which the transwarp drive operates, which Scotty handily knows how to program in order to beam our heroes back onto the Enterprise.

Get. To. Fuck.

The same stupefying lack of sanity applies to the Romulans: apparently they decided to just hang about for all this time without traveling back to Romulus in their great big fuck-off so-advanced-it-must-be-from-the-future starship and warn somebody? Tell me, if the Earth was destroyed and you went back in time to before the destruction, what would you do? Float around in space looking moody OR DO SOMETHING? (and don't give me that 'emotionally compromised' line from the film. By that point, I was actually muttering 'oh, come on' out loud in the cinema.)

And that's before we even get to the Red Matter. As at least one internet commenter has pointed out - I think it was Mike Brotherton - apparently this miracle substance, once transformed into a singularity, doesn't work unless you drill a big hole in a planet first. People, if a singularity hit Earth right now, the lack of a big hole conveniently drilled into the ground for it to fall into really isn't going to make one bit of difference.

The destruction of Romulus actually had me swearing at the screen. Apparently there's a supernova endangering the whole galaxy - well, okay; I used the idea of a gamma-ray burster as the central threat in my first novel, Angel Stations. They're threatening because of the amount of radiation they put out. The levels of energy involved are beyond stupendous. But in the movie, we see a planet going all kerflooie when a big wave of dust hits it.

Er, no. Once, twice, thrice, no.

I'm a writer, not a scientist (dammit). But I do at least try to enough research that I can have at least some kind of tenuous grasp on what the hell I'm talking about, even when I wind up breaking the laws of physics with glee. Making shit up is part and parcel of a writer's job. Matter transporters? Sure, why not. It's called suspension of disbelief. But that suspension of disbelief - essential when dealing with this kind of subject matter - goes out the window in the first five minutes when you discover that kids in the twenty-third century like stealing open-top roadsters and listening to the Beastie Boys. Really?

The problem here is essentially that of an idiot plot designed to fit around a series of 'cool' set-pieces designed by people who, if you actually asked them what a star is would, I assure you, have to think about it. A surprising number of people - otherwise entirely intelligent people who tie their own shoelaces and do their own taxes - don't actually know what those twinkly lights in the sky even are. And if you tell them, they'll have a vague sense that they're sort of ... floating around out there, like random billiard balls bouncing around an infinitely large pool table. It isn't because they're stupid. It's just that they're merely insufficiently interested to ever, ever bother finding out. And if they did, they wouldn't care. That's how we wound up with TV shows in the Seventies like Space: 1999. Even then, I knew the idea of the Moon just floating around and randomly bumping into alien planets in that same perpetual game of interstellar billiards was complete dribble, but a lot of people - primarily those that created the show - didn't know, and cared less.

The complete lack of sense or logic in almost every scene of Abrams' reboot can be easily explained by a desire to make the images on the screen look good, regardless of whether or not they contain a single iota of rationality. A starship with a series of platforms strung over the top of an enormous drop and no railings to stop people falling off? But it looks so cool. Check out that artist's rendition of the Romulan ship, guys. How about they have a big drill? They're miners, right? Yeah, and then we can have them jump off the spaceship and parachute down to the drill platform. Well, yeah, sure they have transporters that can get them down to where they need to be in seconds (I seem to recall they're certainly used to get them back off the drill platorm), but on the other hand if they skydive down to it it'll look really cool.

As others have said, Chris Pine sure does spend a lot of time hanging off of things by his hands. On a quick mental recount, there's a cliff at the start, then the drill platform, one of those dodgy hanging-over-a-void platforms in the Romulan ship ... did I miss any? There are scenes shot in what is meant to be the Enterprise's engineering section, but is so obviously the interior of a chemical plant that I was immediately jolted out of any sense they were taking place on board a starship.

All right, I admit it. Star Trek movies by and large, aren't hard to shoot down. I've ignored the more well-known idiocies, like Spock being half-human and half-alien. If you really want to understand beyond even the obvious reasons why this is so startlingly idiotic, I recommend a book called 'What Does A Martian Look Like,' by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, a series of carefully informed speculations about what form alien life might actually take, starting with the observed rules of evolution and the more extreme life-forms occupying some fairly radical ecological niches right here on Earth. Their general conclusion is that such life would probably be so remarkably different from anything we understand as 'life', we might not even recognise it. In other words, it probably wouldn't look just the same as us bar a pair of pointy ears and a habit of making sarcastic remarks about Earthmen. But we can forgive that - somewhat - for the sake of those long-ago episodes that made the series as long-lived as it's proven to be.

Now, I grew up with Star Trek - the original Star Trek, anyway. For all its problems, there were times when it made for outstanding television. And then, unfortunately, there were times when you got see Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan duking it out on an alien planet. Or some girl in a silver wig and a desperately unflattering loincloth churning out lines like: 'Captain Kirk, what is this ... love, that you speak of?' I've never been fond at all of the subsequent reboots like Next Generation or Deep Space 9 or any of the rest, since by and large they were so bad they made me cringe. So why am I picking on this movie out of everything else?

Perhaps because of the praise it's been given that I feel is far from deserved; perhaps because I have fond childhood memories of episodes like Space Seed or City on the Edge of Forever. These are the benchmarks by which the movie - all the movies, all the shows - must be judged, and they rarely if ever reached it. If people say this is the best Star Trek movie they've seen since, say, Wrath of Khan, then I must say (with the caveat I didn't see the last couple of films) that it is instead the worst. Chris Pine's Kirk is a wayward kid you wouldn't put in charge of a hot dog stand let alone a starship. Think I'm wrong? Here's a challenge. Go back to the original series of Star Trek, something like Space Seed, which introduced Ricardo Montalban's Khan. Watch it and just try and tell me Shatner's Kirk wouldn't have Chris Pine crying in his milk in a hundred seconds flat.

For all the hamfistedness sometimes evinced in the original series and to a greater extent in those later reboots, the show had one redeeming quality that has been named again and again by commentators and critics over the years: a certain sense of optimism. The show even began with a mission statement of exploration, discovery, and split infinitives. And yet, none of this spirit is evident in this new film. It is, instead, a tale of almost medieval revenge; you kill my planet, I kill your planet, and in turn I kill you.

Gene Rodenberry this is not.

In a way, it's the fault of all of us that such inept, cruddy, irredeemably stupid and downright cynical films are being made, because we all troop off to the cinema to see them, myself included. But there are times when I think, no: I've had enough. Enough of seeing my genre denigrated by people who literally have no idea what they're talking about. Enough of giving my money to charlatans who've reduced movie-making to a kind of visual pornography of set-pieces and special effects. I won't be going to see Wolverine, or Terminator: Yet Again, or whichever episode of Franchise: The Quickening is being churned out to the local cinema this month. Instead I'll be spending my money on the little-known genre movies with big hearts made by directors I've never heard of. Films like Let The Right One In, or perhaps Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti, about which I've heard good things. Because in my experience, it's the smaller movies - like Pi, or Primer, or Pan's Labyrinth - that dare to not treat their audience like morons.

18 comments:

paul f cockburn said...

When I went to see Star Trek: The Reboot there were five trailers -- four, the basic narrative "thrust" was revenge. Can't people forgive and forget nowadays? Or even forgive and remember for the rest of their darned lives?

By the way, wasn't the original Trek rather Republican in its "lets police the galaxy" routine? In which case, criticising the new Trek for being like the old Trek is hardly news...

Al said...

While I think most of your criticism stands fine (Hell, where did Spock get the wood for his torch on an ice planet?), Spock wasn't sitting around for 25 years. The Romulans arrived 25 years before him (as Spock explains and the movie shows) and they were waiting for him when he finally showed up with the ship and the "red matter."

Still doesn't explain why he couldn't wander over to the base when they did drop him off a day or three before the death of Vulcan.

gary gibson said...

Al - point taken. But even a couple of days is enough time to *do* something, as you point out, particularly given the stakes. I recall the whole episode of picking up Spock was done as a kind of narrated flashback, and that's perhaps what led me to believe it was a relatively long time before the destruction of Vulcan.

jimsteel said...

C'mon, Gary - like you've never stolen a horse and gone charging round Glasgow with Bach blasting out of the cassette player that was tied to the saddle.

Ken Kopin said...

Um, cause the planet was a cold barren shit-hole teaming with large beasties that'd eat ya rather than look at ya. Probably worse for Spock than anyone else, as Vulcans prefer it a bit warmer than humans anyway. And probably no one told him exactly what was going to happen. Nero didn't mention it to Young Spock, just that he wanted him to see something.

Also, assuming that Old Spock didn't know of the immanent destruction of Vulcan, he would have probably been trying to preserve the timeline. Staying put would serve that well.

Transporting to the mining laser wouldn't have worked because the mining beam was interfering with transporter targeting/locking. They said as much.

The base on the planet Spock was stranded on didn't have transporter gear - presumably that was Scotty's disabled ship. (It was somebodies ship, and clearly it didn't work, or Scotty would have gotten the hell outta there himself.)

Now, nobody SAID that you had to drill a hole in the planet to make the Red Matter work. But if you are in a Mining ship, with a crew of miners who haven't mined anything for 25 years, why the hell NOT drill a big freaking hole first? Plus, putting it in the center of the planet does give you a bit more time to get the fuck away from it and not get destroyed yourself. And since they were on a mission (to destroy strange, new worlds, snerk) they'd want to stay alive to do all of them.

Now here's a question that you DIDN'T ask. Why did Spock bring a Beach Ball worth of Red Matter with him if a drop the size of a large piece of eye crud would do the job?

gary gibson said...

That's some interesting points,Ken, and I stand corrected. I'd counter your point about the barren shithole with the observation that once Kirk turns up, Nimoy appears to have no problem leading them both to the base. Indeed, Nimoy is the one who chases the bigger beastie away. It sounds like I missed one or two things, but then I spent some of the time leaning towards my other half and asking 'what did they just say?' over the deafening soundtrack. She had the advantage, since there were Mandarin subtitles.

I seem to recall, however, that the base did have transporter gear that Scotty uses to get them to the Enterprise, in the form of a series of metal-walled booths from which they are, indeed, transported. I must admit I don't recall there being a ship there, just a base.

Why Spock would bring such a large chunk of Red Matter with him is indeed an interesting question, but I would instead question why the film-makers used such a ridiculous device in the first place. Perhaps one of my real problems with the film is that other problems could have been fixed so easily. Rather than, say, drilling a hole, why not load the singularity bomb (as it were) into one of those thousands of missiles they have handy for taking out Federation starships, and send it flying towards the planet surface? Presumably they have transporter gear: why not transport it into the deep ocean?

Ken Kopin said...

Only for the sake of clarity do I post again. I definitely don't wanna get into a big ol' fanboy slap-fight on the internet :D

I would surmise that once Kirk shows up (and isn't the Captain of the Enterprise), Spock realized that the timeline is already seriously borked, and NOW he would be a corrective, rather than a disruptive force. (Yes, they could have made that clearer.)

Oh, and if Kirk would have just stayed in the pod like a good Starfleet cadet, he probably would have been fine. So I don't think we have to worry about Young Spock's motives here.

There was a very brief, easily missed shot of Spock, Kirk and Scotty climbing into a ship of some sort, which was inside the base (more like a shuttlecraft) which is where the transporters were. So Old Spock could be forgiven for assuming that there wouldn't be any.

Oh, but yea. The fact that Kirk runs smack into Old Spock is a very old trope of "SciFi writers have no sense of scale." Planets (and moons) are HUGE! But at least they hung a lantern on it by having Old Spock point out how improbable it was, and the writers are in good company on that particular mistake. (I don't know how to link here, but tvtropes.org has an article with the above quoted name.)

And I was just WAITING for some kind of punchline for all of the hanging off of things that Kirk does in this movie. Maybe a tip of the hat to Die Hard? "How can the same shit happen to the same guy..." or at least "How do I keep ending up hanging off of shit?" :D

gary gibson said...

No catfight required, Ken, you're right and I was wrong. Or perhaps just somewhat confused by what was going on. Thanks!

Bazza said...

Isn't anybody worried that by altering the time-line then all the stuff in the original series, and indeed all the subsequent series and films, now never happened? For example it would be tough to explain the episode where Spock got married on Vulcan bearing in mind the planet had been reduced to ashes in the Reboot version. I liked all that stuff and am strangely disturbed it has been airbrushed out of the(fictional) history.

Tip: don't watch Star Trek in the front rows of an IMAX theatre as there are a lot of close-ups and you gain far more knowledge of dermatological conditions than you'd ever want to.

Gav said...

Bazza,
The point that the makers made with Spock's 'different history' comment was that the new ST will catapult the franchise in a new direction; thus leaving the original series unsullied. It's a bit like an alternate comic timeline for your favourite superhero(of which there are tons). Or you could just accept their Quantum mechanics reference...

Gary,

It's not that Spock was carrying around so much 'red matter' that I found so perplexing it's the sheer amount they manufactured. Why make that much more than you actually need? Aren't Vulcans supposed to be logical and efficient? That was a point that didn't make any sense to me.
I'd like to take up your point on the appearance of the Vulcan ship. You ask why they would have a hugely ornamented mining ship. Perhaps the answer is, "Because they can."
Even though we may think that a mining ship requires to be nothing more than a box with some sort of drilling equipment that doesn't mean that some other culture thinks the same way. Perhaps they just like cool spiky hugely ornamented spaceships? And why not?
Even our own naval history shows that captains frequently liked to have hugely ornamented warships - even though such ornamentation was expensive to maintain and [arguably] detrimental to the ships performance.

gary gibson said...

I don't have so much of a problem with an improbably spiky spaceship as long as it's not part of a movie that's been retroconned in such a convoluted fashion that it becomes almost Escheresque in its attempts to sell itself as anything but a Star Trek movie while actually being called Star Trek. I know it doesn't sound like it, but I'm really very forgiving. Honestly. Marty McFly keeps disappearing from his own photographs at the prom every time it looks like he won't be able to make it to the clock tower? Sure it doesn't make a blind bit of sense, and it didn't when I saw it in the cinema, but the whole thing is done with such panache that it's easy to forgive. That odd feeling you got from watching Empire Strikes Back that culminated a few nights later when you woke at three in the morning and realised Luke was effectively trying to *get off with his sister?* Okay, a bit weird, but what a movie! So you let it ride.

So if they want a big spiky spaceship, actually fine. It looks great. It looks like the inside of my head when I'm writing, actually. I'd love to let the guy who designed it loose on doing a design for a Magi starship.

But I *do* have a problem with a big spiky spaceship if it's contained in a blisteringly nonsensical, cynical take on a half-century old franchise that's the closest the rights-holders will ever get to sneaking up on Gene Rodenberry's grave in the dead of night and driving a stake through his dead and rotting heart. The film's inherent silliness did nothing but remind me every two minutes that big spiky spaceships are silly too. If the movie had been a lot better, I probably wouldn't find myself constantly reminded of that.

I should say your point is entirely spot on, it's just that in this particular case my suspension of disbelief started whimpering and went out into the foyer to get a breath of air.

Cliff Burns said...

Dreadful, dreadful film and it was with great pleasure that I eviscerated it in my review. There was so much wrong with the film only big-thumbed, small-brained mallrats with disposable incomes and three active neurons would find it an enjoyable experience. There are more and more comparisons between Abrams and Michael Bay popping up and I can see why. Gene Roddenberry is spinning in his grave like a fucking highspeed lathe...

Gav said...

I enjoyed the film and filed it under "enjoyable romp". I didn't get the same sense of political propaganda that you did. Yes it was silly, yes the explosions were very big, yes "the message" was simple but I don't think it was any less brash/flashy/silly than Star Wars (especially in the 70s). Or even original Trek for that matter.

For me, this film represents the first step to bring back a much loved franchise. I hope that the next films (and there will be at least 1 judging by box office takings) maintain the look but improve in the general writing and characterisation elements. If experience of cult tv and films has taught me one thing it's that sometimes actors/writers/directors don't get it the first time and such shows develop over time. With Hollywood being as fickle as it is only time will tell. The big problem is keeping the sundry money men out of the picture. They invariably ruin runs of films (see Batman).

I certainly don't think that new Trek is any worse than the majority of the dross that Hollywood chucks our way. I've been waiting for a decent space opera to come along for a while. For me ST ticked that box.

I do wish we had more 'serious' SF films too - but then I don't think the general populace appreciate those that do get made.

It's a pity that your expectations weren't met. I hate it when that happens.

gary gibson said...

Eh, no worries, Gav. I just like a good rant from time to time. Most people give up on me when I tell them Zardoz is one of my all-time favourite films.

Cliff - if you could post a link to your review here in the comments, that would be good.

Cliff Burns said...

Gary:

I leap at the opportunity to have more smart folk read my "Trek" review and so I eagerly take up your offer--here 'tis, the link to my site:

http://cliffjburns.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

Mike says
G'damn but you're right. I enjoyed it when I was watching it, but thinking on it you're right about it being a string of set pieces, and yup, Kirk comes across as the kind of arrogantly rash attention-seeker who would be offed in the first reel of a teen slasher movie.

I guess I tend to go see blockbuster flicks with my quality control dialed waaay down these days. But watching Primeval on TV - hoo hoo, dont get me started, me bucko!

gary gibson said...

Hi Mike. Yeah, Primeval didn't so much jump the shark as achieve orbital velocity over the shark, yeah? Ian 'the salesman' Sales did his own review and noticed something that passed me by; apparently when Spock's watching Vulcan being destroyed from the surface of the ice planet, he's doing this from an *entirely different solar system*. Now there's a neat trick.

Paul said...

"But Abrams' Star Trek isn't a movie. It's a Republican Party broadcast."

Out of interest, when was the last time you watched "City on the Edge of Forever"? Probably not recently -- after all, you've better things to do. But, having recently rewatched it -- with the "new" CGI effects which add, er, precisely nothing to the production -- I couldn't help but notice that the Joan Collins character is an anti-war campaigner who, had she lived, would have delayed US entry into the Second World War, allowed the Nazis to develop atomic weapons and so changed the timeline forever... The message of the show being... peace campaigners are bad news -- and this was an episode originally broadcast during the Vietnam war!

All in all, I think that's probably one change to his script that Ellison had a right to be annoyed about!